2021 Bentley Bentayga (prototype) review

Published:30 June 2020

Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • At a glance
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By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

► Bentley’s SUV gets a facelift – and we’ve driven it
► New metalwork, new infotainment, detail chassis tweaks
► Revised Bentayga will have to drag Bentley out of its Covid slump

Bentley had a good 2019, and the luxury maker was on course for a hugely successful 2020 until the world stopped. Regardless, it’s the Bentayga SUV that’ll do the sales heavy lifting as Bentley works to get back to where it was, just as it would have been the Bentayga propelling it to chunky profits had the pandemic struck.  

Now that the Mulsanne’s been retired and the Continental GT and Flying Spur replaced, the Bentayga’s been worked over with a ruthlessly targeting mid-cycle refresh intended to make the car easier on the eye and easier to use, with fresh metalwork front and rear and a revised interior burnished with a new infotainment system and driver’s display.

CAR lives with the 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8: our long-term test

Ahead of the car’s unveiling, we were invited to join Bentley engineers as they worked on the new car’s final calibration on the varied and heat-soaked roads of South Africa. 

Still faster than any SUV really needs to be

South of picture-postcard Franschoek, in the Mont Rochelle nature reserve, the snaking tarmac of the R45 down to Cape Town is a sensational bit of engineering. It’s a relentless 30°C outside. The landscape’s a ferociously three-dimensional and parched place of sheer rock slopes, broken peaks and blackened, fire-ravaged wilderness. Yet somehow the road through it is perfect; smooth, empty, wide (important when you’re driving a contemporary Bentley) and dry. 

In a W12 Bentayga you don’t so much approach corners as find they’re flung at you, such is the twin-turbo, 6.0-litre unit’s surfeit of performance. (Peak power and torque are as before, 627bhp and a stonking 664lb ft – not figures that would suggest any need for a turning up of the wick.) As corner-entry looms, you’re faced with a little game of mind over matter. Significant portions of your brain, drawing on experience and encouraged by your squidgy self’s fondness for self-preservation, are keen to get on the brakes. But recent evidence, gathered over the last day or so behind the wheel of this new Bentayga in both V8 and W12 guises, suggests you need do nothing of the sort – the Bentley will be just fine.  

And so, with nothing more involved than a click or two on the downshift paddle (an action inaudible to passengers, just as the gearshifts themselves are all but imperceptible) and a gentle input at the wheel, the Bentley arcs into the onrushing right-hander at undiminished speed. Grip feels infinite. With the drive mode controller clicked one stop counter-clockwise, from default Bentley to tauter Sport, body control is, frankly, breathtaking.

It’s been with us for some years now, Bentley’s compromise-defeating performance SUV. But the ability of its party trick – 48-volt active anti-roll bars able to generate obscene corner speed in a car otherwise so luxurious you’d forgive it titanic bodyroll – to lightly blow your mind is undimmed. And it’s this, rather than the car’s wanton straight-line performance, that makes it such a mighty long-distance machine. I once drove the length of France in a day in a V8 Bentayga, on a mix of roads, and if it hadn’t been for the fuel consumption’s merciless destruction of my solvency, I’d have happily carried on.

The same, but different?

Mechanically, little has changed for the Bentayga’s second coming: same platform; same corner-crushing 48-volt roll control; same choice of W12 (though the 12-cylinder Speed flagship won’t now be available in the UK), V8 (542bhp, 568lb ft) or V6 plug-in hybrid powertrains, though the automatic transmission’s had its code tickled for still smoother shifts. 

But this is a significant revision with regard the exterior metalwork and the interior, two of the original Bentayga’s less convincing aspects. The interior’s combination of VW Group tech and lavish Crewe craftsmanship was not without appeal. But the infotainment felt dated from day one, and the car’s challenging aesthetics didn’t become any less polarising with time. Despite Bentley’s touch-and-go profitability, head of engineering Werner Tietz (the body specialist behind the Panamera, Macan and 992-generation 911 Porsches) managed to get sign-off on swathes of new exterior metal.

The front end, bonnet, front wings, body sides and boot are all new and all aluminium, with only the roof and door skins carried over. Key to the updated aesthetic are new lights front and rear. Using similar themes and forms to those of the Continental GT and Flying Spur, these pieces of automotive jewellery go a long way toward making the new Bentayga more comfortable in its skin. 

‘It’s a big investment but necessary,’ says Werner (since confirmed as Seat’s new vice-president for R&D; Matthias Rabe will take over Tietz’s development role at Bentley). ‘When you join a company [Werner arrived in Crewe in 2018] you always have the impression that you can do something better, you know? The design of the old car, especially at the rear, we thought was a perhaps a little old fashioned. So, we modified it [the bootlid is now full width]. It’s near enough five years since the original car, so we needed to freshen it up. It’s a big investment but we sold some 5000 Bentaygas in 2019, and we ended up selling 11,006 cars in total, a new record for us.’

A keen driver who owns a Porsche 911 GT3 (991.2) and cites his laps of the Portimao circuit in Bentley’s Conti GT racer as the best thing he’s ever done in a car, Tietz has been hands-on throughout the development of this updated Bentayga, driving when he can in environments as disparate as African wilderness and the snowy wilds of Sweden. So, when he says he’s confident Bentley’s SUV didn’t need wholesale revision of its chassis or powertrains, it’s not from a position of office-based ignorance.

‘We haven’t made any changes to the spring and damping rates, or to the steering – in these areas we are still competitive,’ explains Tietz as we meander out of Cape Town on the coast road, the crowds and beaches giving way to more elevation and a spectacular view of the glittering ocean to our right.

‘We are looking at the Mercedes active four-corner suspension system [E-Active Body Control, as found on some versions of the GLE not sold in the UK], which offers some potential beyond the active anti-roll bars, but we are still competitive with what we have. In terms of the chassis, we have increased the rear track width a little [by 10mm each side, achieved via a geometry change using carry-over components but with a new pair of necessarily longer rear driveshafts]. This brings a little more stability and support to the rear axle, especially with the plug-in hybrid version, which of course places more weight on the rear axle [thanks to its rear-mounted battery].’

A nicer place to be

As we turn inland the view shifts from the surf and spray of the shoreline to progressively more imposing hill ranges, inland lakes dotted between them. As the road climbs and twists, the Bentayga wants for neither power nor composure. Its breed of ultra-rapid progress isn’t big on nuanced interaction or driver involvement, but neither is it meant to be.

The Bentley prefers instead to simply overwhelm every obstacle you throw at it, air suspension smothering rough roads (mostly; there’s a restless air-suspension fidget on some surfaces) just as the engine renders even fierce gradients inconsequential. At the same time the cabin’s hushed and cooled calm removes anything vaguely resembling discomfort or effort from the act of travelling.  

Behind the wheel, you notice that the previous car’s analogue dials are gone, replaced by a 10.9-inch digital instrument cluster. The default view’s still a pair of dials, in the same clean Bentley font, but digits are only illuminated in the vicinity of the needles, leaving the rest of each dial dark. On unfamiliar roads you can also substitute one dial for a big map – nice functionality, and the display is suitably glare-free and crisp. 

In the middle of the dash, the old infotainment screen’s been replaced by a bigger, crisper one familiar from the Flying Spur. The system uses the same combination of touchscreen and physical controls (buttons and a knob for the rapid navigation of lists or scaling of maps), and it’s a slick system – responsive to the touch, easy on the eye and with ‘Hey Bentley’ voice recognition, if you’re into that sort of thing. The new system lifts the Bentayga’s interior considerably, as do the new central vents (also pinched from the Flying Spur), while in the back there’s more legroom and more recline courtesy of revised seats.

You really want to off-road a £147k SUV?

Opportunities for off-roading anything in the UK, let alone Bentleys, are few and far between, but this region’s laden with vineyards, some of them high on sun-drenched hillsides. Configuring the car for the rough stuff has never been easier, with the drive mode controller offering a range of off-road settings (we opt for Muddy Ruts). A quick prod of the touchscreen extends the air suspension to full height. 

The terrain isn’t hugely demanding, but neither could you get a Clio up here – the vineyard uses a Land Cruiser. On summer tyres the Bentley never struggles for traction and clears some ugly-looking ridges and troughs without so much as a scrape of its undercarriage. It’s curious, forging ahead over flood-ravaged landscape and rocky drops in a car this valuable. But, like pouring the Bentley into fast on-road bends at three-figure speeds, so capable is the car that you’re soon comfortable.  

Verdict

‘Bentley is not about sports cars, it’s about the combination of luxury with performance,’ says Tietz as we head for base. ‘The Flying Spur is a good example. Drive it in Comfort mode and it’s a luxury limousine. Switch to Sport and you’re suddenly on a level of performance you really don’t expect. It’s the same with the Bentayga; comfort, performance and this high level of off-road capability. This is unique, I think.’

Unique? Rival machines from the likes of Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes would beg to differ. But they’ll need to see off a Bentayga made more compelling than ever by this surgically targeted update

Specs

Price when new: £146,700
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 3996cc 32v twin-turbo V8, 542bhp @ 6000rpm, 568lb ft @ 1960rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Performance: 4.4sec 0-62mph, 180mph
Weight / material: 2416kg/steel and aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm):

Photo Gallery

  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive
  • Bentley Bentayga prototype drive

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

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